When an industry titan with a mansion on Mars doesn’t kill, thank your lucky stars that you have Keegan-Michael Key waiting in the wings. The cast of Saturday Night Live seemed delighted to have one of their own back on stage with them this week—particularly Kenan Thompson, who was on the verge of low-key breaking throughout most of their sketches together. In turn, the actor, sketch comedian, and first-time host seemed as moved by his moment as he was determined to meet it.
Also swinging for the fences was the president of twelve-to-fifteen-year-olds, musical guest Olivia Rodrigo. She somehow managed to make her ubiquitous hit “Drivers License,” which the men of the SNL spoofed during a recent episode, fresh again. Yay for actual performers!
The show’s cold open celebrated two victories: the possible rekindling of gas station enthusiasts Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck’s relationship, and the CDC’s not-at-all disorienting announcement that people can now forego masks as long as they’re vaccinated and not big, fat liars about it. In a press conference, Kate McKinnon’s Dr. Fauci acknowledged the fact that Americans might have some pressing questions on shifting public policy, like, “What the hell are you talking about? And, Is this a trap?” So he invited some fellow doctors and former theater minors to act out possible scenarios that also served as reminders that ours is an ugly, crass world, so mask-anxiety should perhaps be low on the totem pole. Example: “I’m concerned. This is a pretty large gathering. Should we be wearing masks?” worried Alex Moffatt. “We don’t have to,” said Cecily Strong. “We’re outside…the Capitol building. Now come on, let’s get ‘em!” And off she went waving her gun, trotting like a proud, patriotic pony.
In his exuberant monologue, Key shouted out his roots as a SNL superfan from Detroit (though the response was oddly muted, as if the editors wouldn’t allow another city mentioned on New York turf) and then quickly broke into song. His number involved a quick change from tuxedo to under-tuxedo, a promise to let Pete Davidson tattoo him after the show. Then, just as Key was basking in his glory, he welcomed a question from the audience. “Uh, yeah, what it was like to win an Oscar for Get Out?” Lest white people be confused further, Thompson then joined Key onstage so that Kenan and Keegan could self-differentiate in real time: “I’m Kenan with an N, as in Kenan has been on SNL for many, many years.”
Hmm, what might be artistically satisfying to imagine after having to continually assert the very uniqueness of your self? How about a sketch in which you get to beat the stuffing out of the two oldest, whitest men in cultural history? Key and Thompson played a security duo on The Muppet Show who rushed the stage when Kermit and Melissa Villasenor’s Lily Tomlin were interrupted by Waldorf and Statler, heckling from their balcony. “Everybody paid good money to hear this little dragon and his friends!” chided Key. When the critics kept at it, Key burst through the curtain. “Y’all are going to learn!” he said, before turning Statler’s eyes purple with crosses and hooks. It was a perfectly calibrated, weirdly provocative act of utter absurdity. Key took his time on that beat-down, and Thompson delighted in every dumb blow.
Key also brought puffed-up alpha swagger to the role of Michael Jordan, in scenes from The Last Dance’s cutting room floor. Heidi Gardner played his doting security guy who incurs the wrath of Jordan’s competitive spirit by daring to win $5 off of him in a round of wall quarters. “When he did that little shrug,” Key remembered, gripping that iPad of memories in his blue t-shirt from his interview throne, “I took that personally.” Chris Redd’s Dennis Rodman and Kenan Thompson’s Charles Barkley joined the scene as Jordan made the man pay. Gardner’s Wozniak ended up pantless, penniless, cross-eyed and quivering, grinning through his whimpers lest he risk MJ’s good humor. This has the making of a good partner Halloween costume.
Two Weekend Update jokes deserve individual shout-outs. Sharing that IBM announced it had created the world’s smallest and most powerful microchip, Colin Jost pleaded “Not…now” as his screen pulled up an image of vaccine conspiracy theories. Michael Che then scoffed at the Republican talking point that Nancy Pelosi was harboring a secret socialist agenda: “Oh, please, the only way Nancy Pelosi has a socialist agenda is if Socialist is the name of a restaurant in Napa Valley.”